Everyone can make a Gertrude Abercrombie painting—or, at least, everyone is invited to try in the interactive installation that accompanies this exhibition of the Chicago artist’s interior spaces and surreal landscapes. Pick from an assortment of black cats, owls, bare trees and ostrich eggs, then arrange them against a dark, moonlit sky. It’s not likely that the results will be worth saving, but if she had not become famous, the same might be said about Abercrombie’s own minor works. Possibly the small, dark and clumsy pieces included in this exhibition were quickly made to sell at outdoor art fairs. Fortunately, this exhibit also includes some of her truly extraordinary work. As demonstrated by the earliest piece in this show, “There on the Table” (1935), Abercrombie (1909-1977) had an uncanny knack for combining strong personality with strong design. As demonstrated in some later works like “Shell and Drape” (1952), her painting often achieved a gem-like standard of perfection.
Not one for writing manifestos or joining any group which she did not lead, her link to Surrealism is more observed than proclaimed, likewise for any connection to Jungian psychology or Wicca. The notion of a collective unconscious of archaic patterns is no longer fashionable. Today, we’re more inclined to understand the human condition within a social justice metanarrative. But still, it’s hard not to feel the power of the Moon Goddess archetype in Abercrombie’s work. More than once she presents that dark, enigmatic figure and her nocturnal world. Growing up in a family of opera singers, she may have identified with the “Queen of the Night,” that relentless adversary of the omnipotent patriarch in Mozart’s “Magic Flute.” Possibly she embodied that in her personality as well, which may explain why the rebellious young African-American musicians who created bebop jazz enjoyed her company. If you look online for contemporary depictions of the Triple Goddess, all you find is cheesy, saccharine illustrations suitable for display above scented candles. Abercrombie’s images, however, have the cold, hard edge of psychic reality. They also have the dry humor of a clever horror-fantasy cartoonist like Gahan Wilson, yet they are more mysterious and powerful. Some pieces depict dream-like fantasies—as when a tall ladder appears to lean against the moon. Yet even more remarkable are her depictions of ordinary events, like a black cat sitting in front of three unhinged doors.
Almost all the pieces in this exhibit come from either the Illinois State Museum or the Maurer collection. One might have wished that more of her best work had been borrowed from other collections as well. One might also wish that the pieces in deep frames had been better lit. In three pieces, the shadow of the upper frame covers about twenty percent of the painting. Fans of this artist will still find plenty to enjoy—including a wall of archival photographs and four portraits of the artist painted by her friend, Karl Priebe. One can only hope that eventually she will be given a more thorough retrospective in the Art Institute’s Regenstein Hall.
“Gertrude Abercrombie: Portrait of the Artist as a Landscape” shows through March 4 at the Elmhurst Art Museum, 50 Cottage Hill Avenue, Elmhurst.